Here's a Health to the Barley Mow
Here's a Health to the Barley Mow (Various directors; BFI 2012)
For the first few seconds of Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, the BFI's collection of films on British folk customs and games, George Butterworth waits frozen in time. It's 1912, and the English composer and folk song collector is about to demonstrate his aptitude for Morris dancing. The ensuing performance, captured on an early form of moving picture camera called a Kinora, took place (it is thought) at Kelmscott, just four years before Butterworth died on the Somme. The whole sequence was subsequently transferred to 16mm film and, despite its age, for most of the minute's worth of footage, Butterworth--hopping, leaping and spinning in front of trees and foliage--is a relatively distinct figure, only occasionally jerking out of focus or blearing into the screen's mottled margins. In another film, seemingly recorded at the same location on the same day, Cecil Sharp, that doyen of the English folk song and dance revival, briefly stumbles against Butterworth as they dance across and around each other before linking hands with their female partners. This momentary collision gives all four the giggles and, for a moment, their unheard laughter seems to bridge the one hundred year gap between the modern viewer and those properly turned out, far away figures.
As some of the earliest moving images of British folk culture, these Kinora films are fittingly placed at the beginning of this double DVD set of remastered footage illustrating a century's worth of ways in which local traditions have been celebrated, preserved and renewed. Consisting of forty-four films covering locations as far apart as Orkney and Cornwall as well as much in between (1), this is an impressively diverse collection, thematically arranged into Dance and Song, Extreme Sports, Mummers and Hobbyhorses and All Manner of Customs. Depending on your familiarity or even involvement with many of the customs and games featured, you may well find something here to confirm or add to your existing knowledge. Alternatively, if like the present reviewer you have rarely (if ever) encountered even a handful of these activities before, let alone witnessed them at first hand, these films provide an engrossing insight into the mysterious, evocative, comical and often unexpectedly moving means by which communities have expressed their social identity.
Dance and Song, in addition to George Butterworth's Morris dancing, contains several examples of sword dancing from the North East, coconut dancing from Bacup in Lancashire and horn dancing from Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire--the latter captured in particularly spectral silent footage, in which a group of men suddenly emerge from a shaded country lane like a vision of Shakespeare's rude mechanicals. Also featured are characters such as Sam Bennett of Ilmington, a "legendary fiddler and dancer" according to the accompanying booklet, shown in 1926 providing the music for a troupe of young female dancers before going on to perform his own methodically emphatic solo jig before a crowd of bemused onlookers. Then there's Arthur Buckingham, seen in grainy film from 1928 performing a broom dance. Elaborately costumed and undeterred by the schoolboy mimics in his audience, Arthur performs a stony-faced routine, despite at one point dropping the broom and then having to put up with people walking past and standing in front of the camera. In colourful contrast to this early footage, Wake Up and Dance from 1950 is saturated in post-war optimism. Set in a sunny Stratford-on-Avon, it features processions, bunting and an open-air dancing festival, all somewhat clunkily interwoven with an Elizabethan time-slip sequence. In contrast to such unassuming good cheer, and moving forward several decades, Richard Philpott's altogether more esoteric film from 1989 on the subject of Helston's annual Furry Dance juxtaposes contemporary footage with pagan and neolithic images, a combination which, whilst thought provoking, can also occasionally verge on sub-Wicker Man iconography. However, the short film that lends its title to the whole collection is probably the centrepiece of this section. In Here's a Health to the Barley Mow the viewer is transported back to 1952 and The Ship pub in Blaxhall, Suffolk. Assorted regulars with such splendid names as Wickets Richardson and Cyril Poacher are entertaining the locals with songs, music and dance. While this produces the kind of homespun ambience that is a million miles away from the ersatz sociability of today's multi-screen wine bars, that's not to suggest that this is some cosy archival gem bearing greetings from a nostalgic never-land. As with all these films, our impressions of The Ship and its regulars are to an appreciable extent shaped by the intentions and biases of the filmmaker and yet, whether in spite or because of that, the film remains a potent evocation of the past in all its recondite ordinariness.
Extreme Sports are the subject of the second set of films, which, like the previous section, starts out with a selection of silent footage to which newly-recorded musical accompaniment has been added. We see several examples of old newsreel featuring the annual Shrovetide football match which takes place in Ashbourne, Derbyshire: one half of the town plays against the other, the object being, by whatever physical means possible short of out-and-out premeditated violence, to get the oversized ball into the opponents' goal which are located several miles apart. As comically knockabout as this looks in old clips from the twenties, the match takes on an altogether more unsettling intensity in its modern incarnation filmed in 2000, where we see both sides locked in a vast, barely moving scrum which seems to creak with personal grudges (or maybe that's just an outsider reading too much into straightforward commitment and team spirit). A variation on this type of communal free-for-all is the game of Haxey Hood, in which crowds annually gather in the village of Haxey in Lincolnshire to convey, by a process of pushing and pulling, a leather tube or 'hood' to any one of four traditionally designated local pubs. The overseers of this process--the Lord, his eleven Boggins and a Fool--were all in evidence in the short newsreel clip of the event as it played out in 1929, with the degraded condition of the film lending the whole proceedings a charmingly surreal quality. The same could not be said for two short news reports from 1966 featuring the so-called ancient and traditional art of Dwile Flonking. This was an attempt, couched in somewhat strained Rag Week humour, to lampoon the perceived absurdity of folk traditions by making one up, complete with strange name, bizarre protocols and potted history. Though they might be affectionately meant, it is interesting that such spoofs quite often fail to convincingly nail their targets, precisely because so many of the real customs come with an inbuilt quality of self-mockery which is more knowing and edgily humorous than any parody could be.
Some of the most interesting films of the whole collection are contained in the Mummers and Hobbyhorses section. Currently thought to date back to the eighteenth century, Mummers' Plays typically involve several main elements, including conflict between a hero and his dastardly enemy, the slaying of one or more characters, and their miraculous resuscitation at the hands of a quack doctor. In The Tichbourne Mummers' Play from 1919, we are presented with a re-enactment of what would have been the performance given by a group of local villagers to the Lord of the Manor and his guests at Tichbourne Hall every Christmas. The play itself, or 'tragedy' as the makeshift credits term it, is entitled King George and Turkey Snipe and boasts, alongside the eponymous adversaries, such diverse characters as Soldier Bold, Father Christmas and Little Twin-Twang. The action mainly consists of each actor pacing up and down at regular intervals proclaiming unheard dialogue with, from time to time, the odd swordfight breaking out. All is concluded with a short dance featuring an old man in a smock and his heavily veiled, lumbering 'wife.' Another film in this section, Walk in St George, updates the Mummers' Play genre to 1952 and relocates it to Symondsbury in Dorset. In somewhat blanched, home-movie-style footage, villagers are seen hastily assembling outside the local pub as the players with their multi-coloured uniforms and fantastical headgear arrive to enact their story. This particular version features, as well as the ubiquitous Father Christmas, the King of Egypt, Captain Bluster, and Tommy the pony. The action is similar to the Tichbourne performance, if substantially more protracted, with a starring role for the comedy doctor who is almost balletic in his swaggering bravado. Of almost equal interest, however, as in so many of these films, are the reactions of the audience, who are often captured in close-up so that they appear wholly involved in the moment, with their off-guard, occasionally awkward expressions and gestures. The intuited boundaries between spectators and performers and the protocols that demarcate the dramatic space are fascinatingly breached in the next film, Oss Oss Wee Oss. Made in 1952 by Alan Lomax, a renowned ethnomusicologist, this film presents the annual May Day celebrations held in Padstow, Cornwall in which a hobbyhorse, or 'Obby 'Oss, parades through the streets. The 'Oss itself is made of black, shiny material stretched over a circular frame, topped off with a head resembling an African tribal mask. Animated by a sweat-soaked volunteer who clambers into this getup, the 'Oss is shown dancing down the street, swaying and prancing through the crowd accompanied by a pirate-costumed 'teaser' who acts as a kind of toreador in the way that he seems to taunt and encourage the beast to ever more exertions. This teaser's dance is, in fact, a particularly absorbing spectacle in its highly stylised, dipping and swaying physicality, which looks decidedly anomalous in buttoned-up 1950s Britain. As the performance progresses through the streets, the 'Oss periodically stops to envelop a female from the crowd in its skirts or to lie low, feigning death only to suddenly spring into life again. All this takes place to the accompaniment of rhythmically insistent music that enhances the sense of communal energy and seems to inject the proceedings with a heightened momentum. In its compelling mixture of vibrancy and effective compositional economy, Oss Oss Wee Oss is probably one of the most remarkable films of the whole set.
As the title suggests, All Manner of Customs--the final selection of films--covers a miscellany of various items that do not quite fit into the other sections: anything from 1925 newsreel footage showing the 'ordination' of the Boy Bishop of Berden, to a local news report from 1963 in which members of the public in Whitley Bay are buttonholed and invited to gurn for the camera. Alongside these passing curios are some more substantial pieces such as Leslie Daiken's documentary One Potato, Two Potato, from 1957. The subject of this lyrical if elegiac film is children at play, capturing the intricate songs and dances performed by groups of young girls in inner city back streets, and the concentrated reverie of one kid throwing a ball against a wall. Shot in black and white in a late fifties approximation of cinéma vérité, One Potato, Two Potato progresses through the seasons to illustrate the various ways in which children in a pre-Playstation world immersed themselves in the shared rituals of outdoor play. There is a similarity of theme to be found in Children of the Moor from 1975, in its recognition of children as regenerators of communal customs. Unlike the subjects of One Potato, Two Potato, however, here youngsters from Dartmoor are learning some of the traditional activities, such as broom dancing and Mummers' Plays, which had largely been the province of adults in earlier times. Filmed with that slightly foggy, slightly dull, seventies picture quality which makes even bright sunshine seem insipid, this piece portrays a community in transition as it heads into an uncertain future, a feeling best summed up in the somewhat wistful tones of a voice-over at the end, in which a local man says he wants to see "more youngsters taking an interest in Dartmoor... looking after it in years to come, keeping it as it should be kept...as it is." A similarly meditative ambience pervades The Face of a County from 1976, in which the landscapes and traditions of South Yorkshire are surveyed to the meandering accompaniment of musical passages which occasionally give way to the sounds of everyday life: at one moment the muted improvisations of an electric guitar, and the next a pub choir's rousing sing-along. Indeed, the absence of any spoken narrative gives The Face of a County a certain poignant cohesion by virtue of the way it tacitly admits the viewer into its ruminations about tradition and the passage of time, without overtly imposing a didactic structure. As such, it is an object lesson in the effective use of images to convey a visceral sense of place.
With all these films, however, it is important to realise that it is not just the filmmaker's intentions that colour our responses to them. From the earliest Kinora spools of George Butterworth's Morris dancing through to the hand-held video footage of Castleton's Traditional Garland Day from 2000, we view these events through a variety of interpretive filters. These derive as much from the cultural (and technical) idioms within which the films were produced as they do from the biases and predispositions that we bring to the viewing experience. Nor are the customs and games, however archaic, in any sense timeless constants around which our passing interest swirls. Indeed, what this wide ranging collection cumulatively emphasises is that mutability, re-invention and creativity are the necessary drivers for our continual engagement--participative or otherwise--with these traditions. Here's a Health to the Barley Mow effectively and compellingly brings all that into focus, while also providing a highly enjoyable journey through the unifying energy of folk culture. --Mark Jones
 However, for the purposes of this review--Albion's remit being to explore English identity--the Scottish and Welsh subject matter of this collection will not be covered, fascinating in its own right though it is.
Copyright © Mark Jones 2012.